When you write non-fiction – for a magazine, newspaper or newsletter you are usually giving information. The question is – are you giving people the information they are looking for?
I’m not talking here about copywriters who know all too well how to suck us in with 10 surefire ways to… or the 7 secrets of…. They know deep in their bones what information we’re looking for. I’m talking about the rest of us who see ourselves as writers, not copywriters.
If you have a degree in horticulture, how do you know what a new gardener needs to know about growing spinach? Because of your qualifications you’ve been asked to write this. Where do you start? If you write something simple enough for the true beginner are you going to bore the reader who has grown spinach a couple of times before and wants ideas for improving the crop?
If you spend half the article length on preparing the soil – because you believe this is most important – will you turn off those who take the soil for granted and just want to get down to the business of choosing seeds and planting?
Or maybe it’s the church newsletter and the minister asks for an article on the importance of attending the early service and bringing friends and family with you.
As a writer you are torn between what people ought to want to read and what they actually do want. If you write about what they ought to want, will they read it? Or will they glance over the first paragraph and decide that it’s time to take the dog for a walk?
Thing is: If what you write is not read there is very little value in it. Only if someone reads it is there a chance that they will take a few of your ideas to heart and change their behavior.
But the editor said…the minister asked…. Yes, you’re stuck in the middle. They may flatter you with “You’re so good with words. I’m sure you can come up with something.”
The question to ask them (and to ask yourself) is “What do these readers want to know?” What you or the editor or the minister want to tell them pales before what they want to know. And if you don’t know what that is, ask them.
Spend time asking your readers – “What are you looking for in this publication?” “What questions do you have about this topic?” Get as much feedback from as wide an assortment of readers as possible. Then figure out ways to give them what they want to read while at the same time incorporating a little of what you or the editor wants.
Reading is about the readers. Writing is about the readers too.